‘Dogs and Indians not allowed.’
So said the ubiquitous British Raj sign-board, symbol of a sentiment that eventually snowballed into the Quit India movement whereby the brown natives turned the tables against the gora saheb, to assert their sovereignty. However, it appears that, in their heart of hearts, the browns loved the sign-board and almost 75 years into political independence, have gleefully put up its Indianised avatar to alienate themselves from the lesser browns with a hauteur descended directly from the arrogance of the colonial masters.
Welcome to one of the several sarkari offices of the government of Maharashtra, where sign-boards unabashedly assault the constitutionally established sovereign status of an unsuspecting citizen, turning him into a potential criminal liable for punitive action under a mighty impressive list of laws, serving as a barrier between him and the ‘servants’, civil or otherwise.
When you walk into most Maharashtra state government offices, you are greeted by an imposing board that warns you that you may be booked under any of the Sections of the Indian Penal Codes (IPC), if you dare to misbehave with the government official.
These include: Section 353 (Assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty); Section 504 (Intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace); Section 506 (Punishment for criminal intimidation, if threat be to cause death or grievous hurt, etc); Section 332 and 333 (Voluntarily causing grievous hurt to deter public servant from his duty); Section 383, 384 and 386 ( Extortion, punishment for extortion, extortion by putting a person in fear of death on grievous hurt); Section 427 (Mischief causing damage to the amount of fifty rupees); Section 378 an 379 (Theft and punishment for theft); Section 141 and 143 (141: Unlawful assembly and punishment for it); Section 146, 148 and 150 (Rioting, rioting, armed with deadly weapon and hiring, or conniving at hiring persons to join unlawful assembly).
WHEW! Some homework they have done!
Nevertheless, while the Maharashtra babudom wallows in such self-imposed splendid isolation, inveterate history repeating itself too appears in a new avatar, namely, a bunch of Right to Information (RTI) applications that seek to probe and uproot this unwarranted holier-than-thou smugness.
An RTI application filed sometime back by the Akhil Bharatiya Grahak Panchayat (ABGP), a highly respected consumer organisation, had revealed that such sign-boards do not have any official sanction. And, yet, the boards have continued to stand menacingly, insulting the citizens and assailing their constitutional right to visit offices meant for their convenience and benefit.
The Citizen Charter, implemented way back in 1997 where government offices are duty-bound to declare standards of service and the time limits that the public can reasonably expect, avenues of grievance redress and a provision for independent scrutiny with the involvement of citizen and consumer groups, is apparently gathering dust somewhere.
On the other hand, bowing to the demands of the Maharashtra gazetted officers’ union, the government has allowed these sign-boards to be erected and displayed prominently, although the boards paint the citizens as criminals even before they have stepped into the office.
As per a news report, the general administration department (GAD) of the Maharashtra government, in its first appeal hearing revealed to the Akhil Bhartiya Grahak Panchayat that the state government had not issued such an order, which renders the boards illegal ab initio. It only serves to terrorise citizens, said a lawyer, as the Indian Penal Codes (IPC) have been selectively chosen to target the citizens.
Taking up this bizarre issue, RTI activists and users under the umbrella of the RTI Katta have embarked upon campaigning for the removal of these boards, for which they are garnering information under RTI before they set about an action plan.
RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar says, “These boards which are put at every government office are illegal and aim to threaten the citizens. This is against the citizens’ rights. Hence, we are appealing to citizens to file RTI applications, so that we can campaign for the removal of these unconstitutional boards.’’
A draft RTI application is being circulated and applicants are being requested to share the RTI replies to [email protected]
Guidelines from the Katta specify that the RTI application should seek information on: the number of boards put up in your region; since when have these boards been put up; copy of the government resolution (GR), circulars and official meetings held for such a proposal; details of the entire expenditure for making these boards; in case any such crime has been committed by citizens who visit these offices, to provide FIR and complaints made to the police by the government officer and; all information, correspondence and documents related to these boards.
After gathering the applications, the RTI activists plan to have a sustained campaign for the removal of these boards and their replacement with a display of the mandatory duties of the government offices, such as the details of the Citizen Charter and delay in the discharge of official duties.
The mission, to bend the babudom and to rid the citizen of its fear, is on!
(This Column is edited by Shubha Khandekar)
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.